In our series on reframing short-term missions, we’ve previously written about some posture shifts that church teams need to make while they serve. Today we will add to the conversation regarding the purpose of a short-term trip.
Long before embarking on a short-term trip, a church must start by asking, “Why would we want to send a team in the first place?” Your answer to that question speaks volumes about the kind of ministry your team will do and the attitude you will have.
Some common responses include, “we want our people to get out of their comfort zones, to share the gospel, to grow in Christ, to see the world, etc.” For some churches, a short term trip is just “what we do” each summer in the line-up of ministry activities.
But if a short-term trip is simply another to-do on your church checklist, may we challenge you to rethink your vision? It may be too small.
Your motivation matters. The purpose for even a one-week trip must be shaped and carried by the highest level of leadership and cannot be taken lightly. WHY you go drastically impacts HOW you go.
Following are three shifts for churches to consider as they reimagine their purpose in sending short-term mission teams.
From “This Will Change YOUR Life” to “Join GOD’S Mission”
First, our language needs to change as we cast vision for a short-term trip. Historically, the “it will change your life” mantra has been the loudest battle cry (and marketing strategy) for short-term missions.
We typically lead with a horizontal vision (it’s more about the people who go, and/or the people we’re going to), when the real vision is vertical. It is all about God and HIS mission. He has long been at work, establishing His kingdom to the ends of the earth, and a short term trip is a chance for us to see His glory displayed.
As your church discusses the reasons for taking a short-term trip, keep the main thing the main thing. God doesn’t need you, but He invites you to join Him. He longs for His people to catch His heart for the nations. He is beckoning us to come with eyes hungry to see His grand mission unfolding.
This may mean you come only as an observer. It may mean you are much more of a student than a teacher, more of a receiver than a giver. You may stay in the background and serve in unseen, unglamorous ways. You may be a very small part of a much bigger story.
Are your team members willing to be nobodies for the sake of seeing Christ on display? Can they say like the Psalmist, “Not to us oh Lord, but to Your Name be the glory!” Will they be able to lay aside their own expectations and fix their eyes on Jesus?
So, rather than recruiting people with a “life-changing-mission-trip” promise, will you instead mobilize, ignite and launch them into the world to join the grand mission that God Himself is already on?
And as a side effect, they will likely have their own lives changed. But no promises. Because it’s not about us anyway.
From Inviting Ourselves to Being Invited
What is it they say about unwelcomed guests being like fish? They both stink after 3 days? Believe it or not, even short term teams with the best of intentions can stink before long, especially if they were never actually invited to come in the first place.
There seems to be an expectation in the western church that if we want to go, then surely we should be able to go. We sometimes wrongly assume that we are needed or wanted when perhaps we are not.
Or maybe we are tempted to pick our destination based on where we would like to go, what would be neat for us to see and do, or when it is convenient for our schedules.
Instead of knocking on the door and asking if you can come, what would it look like for your church to wait until you are invited? This assumes you are already in relationship with missionaries who know that your church is willing and able to come, should they extend the invitation. (Hint—that’s why Envision exists. We can help you make those partnerships.)
And will you let them set the agenda? Let them tell you who should come, how many, and with what skills? For how long? Your partners on the ground must be the ones who set the purpose, goals, and daily schedule of the trip. Not you.
Will your team members come with the understanding that they will do whatever, whenever, with whomever, for however long? Will they bite their tongues if they are tempted to call the shots?
Repeat after me, “the missionary is always right.” (Well maybe not always. But in this case, if they tell your team to jump, you ask how high.)
They have invited you into their home, to meet their friends, to represent their culture, to share about the God they love. They simply ask that you’d be the kind of guest you would want in your home.
From a One-Time Event to a Long-Term Commitment
“We did Kenya last year, so let’s do Costa Rica this year.” If you’re referring to a family vacation, go for it! If you’re speaking about the next church mission trip, you might want to reconsider that.
It’s tempting to get caught up in the “event” aspect of a short-term trip. Similar to planning a wedding— we can easily put all of our effort into the big, exciting, once-in-a-lifetime occasion while forgetting that the real purpose is to celebrate and start a life-long marriage.
Mission trips should never stand alone, but rather be a spring board to a long-term commitment, or a celebration of a continuing relationship.
A short-term trip can be a beautiful thing when it’s viewed as one small part of a much bigger vision for an ongoing partnership. What would it look like for your church to be invested on the same field for the long haul? To return again and again, while building a significant relationship in between? As any married person would say, the wedding day pales in comparison to the decades-long marriage.
This long-term vision also applies to your individual team members. When they return home, it’s actually only just begun. From the very start, we can be intentionally challenging each person to consider what role they will play long after they’re back.
As a follower of Jesus, every one of us is called to be engaged in God’s mission for life. We are either a giver, a sender, a mobilizer, a pray-er, or a go-er. Those are our options, so pick one! After the “mission trip” portion is done, how will you shift gears into a “mission life” mentality?
Envision is not quiet about our desire that short-term team members would become mid-term interns who would then become long-term missionaries (and it’s happening!). But regardless of whether you stay or go, or if you go short-term or life-long, you have a part to play in the ongoing mission of God unfolding all around you.
So, as your church considers these frameworks for establishing a short-term mission strategy, may you know the true joy of partnering well with God and others in building His kingdom.
Sarah Bourns serves part-time with Envision, facilitating all 2-year mid-term workers as they serve alongside our Envision staff. She is completing her MDiv at the Alliance Theological Seminary. Sarah is originally from California, and enjoys cooking for friends, teaching English, spending time outdoors, and getting auntie time with her nieces and nephew.